Difficult Times

Difficult Times

It's day fifteen of lockdown life here in New Zealand and I've spent every day of the last two weeks telling myself to write and failing to do so. Whilst cycling I managed to do it fairly regularly and here I have no excuses, I'm just a serial procrastinator. Friends have dropped hints that they haven't seen a post for a while and I continue to tell them that I'll do it tomorrow and finally I'm managing to bring my fingers to the keyboard. Apologies, this may be a long read so get the kettle on and make yourselves comfortable whilst I unravel the last few weeks of my life.

Sunday 22nd March and I'd just had two of the most incredible days riding the legendary Old Ghost Road trail from Lyell to Seddonville in the north west of New Zealand's South Island. I needed to ride back to Murchison to a campsite where I'd left a lot of my kit as I'd stayed in the hut on the Old Ghost Road trail to enable myself to carry only a few clothes and my sleeping bag and ride light. It was nearly eighty miles back to Murchison and feeling pretty empty after the rigours of the trail I endeavoured to split the riding over two days, after all I had nothing to hurry back for. Arriving at the Berlins cafe and hostel just outside Inangahua on Sunday afternoon I was tired and rather worried to see that the cafe was closed. With no-one in sight and no obvious entry to the hostel I wandered over to the toilet block in the adjoining campsite and found a lady cleaning the toilets. I enquired about the cafe and she said that they had decided to close due to the coronavirus and my heart sank as I expected that the hostel would also be closed. However, my luck was in as she told me that the hostel was open and that there was no-one else there so I'd have the place to myself - yay, my weary legs rejoiced! I spent the afternoon in a blissful state lying on a sofa and eating chocolate biscuits.

My two days on the trail had given me time to think about what my next move would be. Covid-19 was making it's mark in Europe and there were new cases on a daily basis here in New Zealand. A lot of travellers were already leaving the country and riders on the TA brevet event were stopping short of Bluff to return home. Reports on the news were telling all tourists to return to the UK from abroad and although I'd initially decided that I would ride out the storm here in New Zealand I sensed that it wouldn't be long before things started to escalate. The government had introduced a four tier alert system and we were currently at level two which meant that all mass gatherings had been cancelled, non essential travel was to be reduced and all those over 70 or deemed at high risk from the virus were to stay at home. Level three would see all schools and public venues close, including campsites and hostels, people were to work from home where possible and there would further restrictions on travel. Level four would be a complete lockdown involving all non essential workers to stay in one place for the duration with only supermarkets and pharmacies to remain open to the public. With many European countries already in lockdown and the UK on the verge of following it seemed that things here would change soon. With my return flight not until May 1st and concerned that I could potentially be unable to return to the UK due to their border restrictions I came to the decision to book a new flight home. With a good friend in the Lake District very kindly offering me her spare room to isolate in once I returned to the UK in order not to risk passing on anything to my mam I booked myself onto the soonest possible flight from Christchurch to Manchester via Singapore which was due to leave early Friday morning. It was Monday morning at this point and it would take me three days to ride to Christchurch so it all seemed to have slotted into place quite nicely. It wasn't cheap but I figured that I could try to claim the cost through my travel insurance and my attitude was that there's always the ability to make more money in life but I didn't want to regret not heading home in case something went wrong (God forbid) with one of my family members. I set off on the bike that morning feeling slightly sad that my riding days in New Zealand were numbered but also pretty happy that things were now in place to return to the UK and I could concentrate on the days ahead.

The ride along the Buller Gorge was pleasant but at times busy with traffic and I arrived back in Murchison early afternoon grabbing food supplies for the next three days at the supermarket before heading to the campsite. Tent up and settled in for the night I realised that I may need a transit visa to travel home via Singapore and so spent some time Googling and reading the latest news when I saw a byline about Singapore. My luck had run out - Singapore had just announced that they were closing their airport to transit flights in twenty four hours and so my flight on Friday was a gonner. I was gutted, I'd spent most of the day riding coming around to the idea of my trip finishing and to going home, seeing family and the things that I would do when I got back and now the rug had been pulled out from under my feet. After a desperate online search to find another open route back to the UK it seemed that all viable transit airports were now closed or closing to flights, something that was confirmed by Air New Zealand when I rang them to ask for a refund for my flight. Flying out within twenty four hours was impossible because of the distance between Murchison and Christchurch and also there were no available seats on any of the flights. It looked like I was in New Zealand for the duration no matter what. Whilst I was on the phone discussing my options with the airline I heard the campsite manager talking to the girl behind me and telling her that the campsite was now closed and we would have to leave first thing in the morning. Having ended my call I asked her what he'd said and she told me that the Prime Minister had just announced that New Zealand were now at alert level three and would be moving to alert level four in the next forty eight hours with a complete nationwide lockdown to begin from midnight on Wednesday. This was one time that I wasn't pleased to be right about something. I knew I couldn't make it to Christchurch in forty eight hours, it was two hundred miles away with over two thousand metres of elevation to ride over Lewis Pass and so my priority now was to find somewhere to spend the next four weeks in lockdown.

Grabbing Betty I pedalled off back into town with the intention of going to the tourist information office to see if they knew of any rooms to rent or a place that I could stay for the lockdown, knowing that hostels, campsites, motels and hotels would all now be closing. It was less than an hour since the PM's announcement and yet when I arrived on the main street everything was closed and locked up. The only two stores open were the supermarket and a smaller grocery store. Mild panic set in as I knocked on the local backpackers door and spoke to the manager there. He told me that he'd just had to let all of his staff go and that he didn't know anyone that could help me but that there'd be a lot of people in my situation asking around town. Heading to the grocery store I enquired there about any local farms that may have space for me to camp for the lockdown duration in return for free labour. The owner there was kind enough to ring a local farm for me and so I spoke to the lady there who quizzed me on where I'd been travelling, who I'd been with and if I was unwell. After answering her questions she went and spoke to her husband and then told me that it was too risky for them to have me on the farm as they were both over seventy. I totally understood but felt deflated and increasingly desperate wondering where I was going to stay. Coming out of the store there were now lots of cars on the road and pulling up to the supermarket. People were grabbing trollies and it felt like there was a sense of panic in the air. Riding back to the campsite I was out of ideas and a lump formed in my throat and tears in my eyes as I truly felt alone for the first time on my travels. Forcing myself to focus on the present I set about putting messages on the Warmshowers, TA, New Zealand Bikepacking and other Facebook groups for anyone who could help me out and then started Googling rentals, accomodation and AirBnB properties that could be a possibility. I'd been keeping in touch with Reg and Lizette who I'd met way back up in Cape Reinga at the start of my trip and they'd been in this region recently so I sent them a message seeing how they were doing and if they were going to try and catch a flight home. They were further south and had managed to secure accomodation in Christchurch and offered to let me crash on the sofa there if I needed it. The main problem was that I couldn't get to Christchurch in the timeframe though so I told them that and after a while Reg called me and said that he could possibly drive halfway to pick me up which was so good of him as I knew that they were just as hard-up on time getting to Christchurch in the first place. It was a relief to know that I wasn't quite as alone as I thought I was. The difficulty was trying to find something that was going to be cheap enough not to completely blow my budget as most places were at least $60 (£30) a night and four weeks of that just wasn't really affordable for me. Searching the region north of Murchison I came across a listing for a caravan that was pretty reasonably priced and within a days ride. Sending them a message I explained my predicament and waited expectantly by my phone willing them to reply. Part of the problem was that many people wouldn't want a tourist to stay as we were deemed as more of a risk having been in contact with other travellers who may have just arrived in New Zealand from other Covid-19 affected countries. After a tense few hours my prayers were answered with an incoming message from Helen and Dean who owned the caravan saying that they were happy for me to stay in it for two weeks. I told them that would be amazing and was so completely relieved that I almost cried. Dean even gave me his telephone number so that we could have a chat and as I did so I realised that once again my guardian angel was looking out for me as he was so nice, wanted to help me out and was even going to do me a deal on the price to make it more affordable for me. Words can't describe the relief I felt at knowing that I had a place to stay. It had been a very stressful afternoon and evening and I was exhausted as I headed to my tent for what would be my last night camping for the next four weeks.

Wide awake at 4am the next morning I was tired and anxious and so I used the early hour to my advantage to call family and friends in the UK. They were also going into lockdown in the coming days and it seemed as if the whole world was slowly going into hibernation. When daylight broke just after 7am I hit the road and headed north. Even after speaking to Dean I still felt nervous that my plans would somehow fall through and I'd be left without anywhere to shelter for the lockdown. Fighting back the negative thoughts I tried to focus on the riding, it was a beautiful morning and would be my last full day on the bike for at least the next four weeks. As usual New Zealand delivered the goods with some wonderful scenery to brighten the day and lift my spirits.

The miles ticked by as I tried to savour the moments in the saddle. I didn't really think too much about this being the end of my trip, I was more focused on what I'd need to do in the next day to prepare myself for four weeks of isolation. I was also worried about family and friends and how things were progressing back in the UK. Just after 2pm I arrived in Hope, a small suburb of Richmond in the Tasman region. The name of the place wasn't lost on me and I saw it as an omen of the tough times ahead. Upon meeting Dean all of my worries disappeared as he showed me around my new home for the coming weeks. The caravan was wonderful and much bigger than I had imagined with a large open plan lounge and kitchen area, a queen size bed and a bathroom with my very own shower.

The piece de resistance however was the front deck with table and chairs looking out over a cabbage field, vineyard and the beautiful shapes of the Richmond Hill Forest Park.

Dean left me to get settled in and I simply sat and took it all in. The stresses and worries of the last forty eight hours lifted from my shoulders as I repeatedly thanked a higher being for the amazing position I now found myself in. Having lived an outdoors life for the last seven weeks I could continue to be outside and with nature which without I think my mental health would truly suffer. I was also very privileged to have this space to myself as most travellers would more than likely have to bunk in with others during the lockdown just to be able to afford private rental accomodation.  Spending four weeks with a stranger in such circumstances would be incredibly difficult. I was so grateful that I felt as if the thanks was literally radiating out from within me. Grateful to Helen and Dean for their generosity and welcome, to Reg and Lizette who had offered me their sofa in Christchurch and grateful to this cosy little caravan which was to be home for myself, Monkey and Betty for the near future. I could breathe, everything was going to be ok. Time to focus on staying put and hoping that this awful virus would be stopped in it's tracks with the least amount of lives lost as possible. A time to hunker down, give thanks for what we have and take each day at a time. Kia Kaha - stay strong.