Have you ever played one of those old computer racing car games? The sort they had in arcades in the eighties where you moved your ‘car’ side to side at the bottom of the screen to miss (or overtake) the other racers. They tried to make it more interesting by making a telegraph pole go by every now and then to give the impression of racing down a road. Well, imagine doing that for real, only without the other racing cars on a never ending arrow straight and level gravel track. On your right are the telegraph poles, next to a railway line. On your left is a never ending stretch of farmers’ fields, all growing the same crop. You have thirty miles to cover, enjoy!
Nestled in the foothills just before the Southern Alps, just before you start the Lewis Pass toward Nelson and the west coast, is the small town of Hanmer Springs. I tried to pronounce this name, and I’ve listened to other people say it, but it always sounds like ‘Hamner.’ Anyway, this is a proper little alpine town. When I was in Franz Joseph it felt as if the whole place was geared up toward flogging you various modes of transport up to the glaciers. There were many pubs and restaurants and ample places to spend the night but I always got the impression that it was always just a one horse town. If it hadn’t been for the glaciers, it didn’t seem as if there would have been much point having a town there at all. Whilst people must have lived there in their own houses, I can’t remember seeing a building that didn’t advertise itself as either a boarding house or in some way connected to the tourist trade. Hanmer Springs though has many feathers in it’s cap. You can do all the usual things like Bungee jumping, Jet boating and Rafting, and in winter Skiing, but the town itself is also worth visiting in it’s own right. The main street and town centre is a picturesque mix of park land, green trees and small independent shops selling everything from trinkets to groceries. There are many small cafes tailored for those who just want a bacon sandwich up to those who prefer to eat things drizzled in jus. The buildings are small and reminiscent of those found in the ski resorts of Europe, wooden structures with large windows and triangular pointed roofs. But the thing Hanmer is famous for, the reason there’s the word ‘Springs’ in the name, is because like Rotoroa the town sits on top of natural hot springs. Unlike Rotoroa the place doesn’t stink to high heaven of rotten eggs, though. As you’d expect, there is a spa and unlike the one in Franz Joseph it is actually worth visiting, especially if you have small children. You don’t just sit in a warm pool of water looking at dense forest foliage, you can sit in streams (not natural ones though) or sample pools of differing levels of mineral enriched water. For the kids is a recreation area with water cannons and slides. All this whilst looking around at the pine covered hills dotted by secluded houses. It’s an alpine town that doesn’t ram itself down your neck and is not too commercialised.
I spent three nights in Hanmer Springs, trying in some way to get the town name to live up to a title for a blog I had in my head, ‘Hanmer Horror.’ Other than the agony of cycling up the hills on the way there, which I’ve already written about, I couldn’t think of anything that suited. The campsite I was in was next to a huge pine forest that stretched over the hills toward the Alps proper. Once or twice at night time it sounded like a woodland critter of some kind was snarling and snuffling around outside my tent, but I’d hardly call that horrifying. The only thing I that was scary was the prices of the pubs and cafes, but again nothing I’ve not written about before. The thought of continuing over the Lewis Pass, with 800 metre climbs in places, on a bike that if it was any heavier I’d need a special license to ride, that was horrifying. I sometimes set myself challenges, do things that I’d thought I wouldn’t be able to do or be too chicken to try. I did think about doing the pass, but the distance involved and lack of any shops along the way that I could call into for a sausage roll, meant I would’ve had to carry three or more days of supplies with me. I elected to go back the way I’d come, back toward the east coast and then head south. I packed up (which takes a full hour to do, making sure nothing is going to fall off) and headed back out of Hanmer. The weather was good, warm. The road wound along the between the high hills and overlooked the pebble strewn banks of the Waiau River. The traffic on the road was minimal, and the music playing through my headphones gave me a moment of near perfection. I was on a flat part, peddling along at a good pace. Sat on a fence by the side of the road was a large bird of prey, I don’t know what sort but it had a sharp beak and talons. As I neared it leapt into the air and took off, pounding mighty wings. At that moment, Joe Cocker came in with the chorus of ‘Where we belong,’ that bit where the lyrics go ‘…where the eagles cry, over mountain high.’ Wow. It was all there, the song could have been set in that spot. Up until that point I’d been sniggering that he sounds like he’s singing ‘The lift goes up where we belong…’ yeah, the lifts go up were we are too, Joe.
I made excellent progress toward where I had stayed a few nights before, Balmoral Forest. So good in fact, that I decided to keep going. Going up into the hills is hard, but coming down again is easy and it had taken me over an hour less time to do the same distance back. It could only go down hill toward the sea, couldn’t it?
Three hours later and I arrived as a sweaty aching mess back at Leithfield Beach. Six whole hours in the saddle and over 58 miles (94 km)! I was quite pleased with myself.
The problem is though, there is nothing to do in Leithfield Beach. I spent the next day looking at the road map, where to next? As I scanned the pages, my eyes came across a very familiar name. There was also the symbol of a campsite nearby. What the hell, I’ll head for there. On the bike and off I went. I’d seen villages who had English counterparts before (Rotherham, Oxford, Stavely to name a few) but I couldn’t miss this one. I had to visit the New Zealand version of Sheffield!
On the way there it wasn’t so bad. Flat and straight roads dotted with towns. I stopped for a rest in one town and told someone who asked where I was heading, he said it was a good 30 or 40 kilometres away. I checked my map, that said Twenty. I got there much sooner than I thought, it didn’t feel like twenty at all (although I did pass a sign that said three kilometres to Sheffield, then 200 yards later pass one that said 5 km…) I had been told not to expect much, but I wasn’t bothered. Sheffield was a village with the three main things a village should have. A pub, a school, and a pie shop. The railway ran through the middle of it, there were a few houses, and that was it. I called into the pie shop (the pub was closed, and unless it was boarded up, that is something you wouldn’t expect at lunch time back home) and mentioned I was from Sheffield in England, sort of expecting a free pie maybe or a cheer at least. “Yeah, we get a few people coming through saying that…” was the response from the woman behind the counter. Ho hum. I’d made good progress again and had noticed a second campsite closer toward Christchurch near a town called Rolleston. Also as luck would have it, the railway ran directly there and there was a road that ran alongside the tracks. It was off the main highway, so it would be quiet…
The tarmac quickly gave way to gravel and the road became pitted and pot holed, just like home. I saw something, a shape or a tree out of place in the far distance and I prayed it would be something to mark the end the road. When I got there, I saw only the same thing again, far ahead like a mirage. Mile after mile. In places I rode on the wrong side of the road, sometimes because it was smoother and sometimes for something to do. I was on a never ending treadmill were the scenery never changed…. Never had I been so bored when out riding my bike. When I got to my campsite, I’d covered in around eight hours from Leithfield almost 71 miles (114 km). I’m not going to be moving for a few days, methinks!
Mini Count :- 46 The only thing of interest in Leithfield Beach.