Saturday, 6 December 2008

Road trip - Wellington to Taupo

Driving up to Taupo from Wellington and back, we drive through some quintessential Kiwi-land with iconic scenery and towns. Allow me to share it with you.

The town of Bulls has pictures of the beasts everywhere and a slightly disturbing anatomically correct statue outside a medical clinic. It boasts it is ‘not just a turn-off’. No, it’s more than that; it is the home of terri-bull puns. The real estate agent sells houses for $200,000 that are ‘live-a-bull’ and ‘own-a-bull’ and a shop that sells cheap designer gear is called la-bulls.

Bulls does have a really good shop called Bili Tees which sells great t-shirts featuring koru, rainbows or fun slogans from ‘Taupo – it’ll float your boat’ to ‘NZ – the grass is just greener’ or ‘Shut the Hutt up’ – Him Outdoors reckons that last one could drop the last word and still be effective.

It is, indeed, very green with lots of rolling hills in the distance and flat farmland and appalling impatient driving in the foreground. Acres of pleasant iconographic scenery are marred only by Tui billboards; isn’t it time to put these out to pasture? The ‘Yeah, right’ slogan was vaguely amusing when it emerged five years ago but now it is tired and lazy and a poor excuse for humour that unintelligent letter-writers use to share their unoriginal drivel with the nation, thinking they are oh-so-witty.

Taihape welcomes you with a corrugated iron Wellington boot and a ‘Gumboot café’ (Translation – gumboots are what Kiwis call Wellington boots). The town seems to have built itself entirely around said boot and they even have a festival where they set records for the furthest distance one can throw a boot. This all came about because ‘Taihape Promotions’ wanted to promote their town in the 1980s. Due to the decline of the railways and the removal of government subsidies on agricultural supplies, the town was suffering and population fell from 3,500 in the early 1960s to about 1,800 in 1985.

In an attempt to reverse the economic downturn and attract people to their town, the promotions people came up with the idea of marketing themselves as living in gumboot country. According to the
Taihape Information Centre, Gumboot Day was invented to ‘entice travellers to stop and see what Taihape had to offer.’ It’s astounding what passes for entertainment in some places, but they do honest burgers on proper buns that don’t taste processed, so full marks for that.

There are ringing bells and flashing lights but no barriers at a State Highway 1 level crossing just outside Taihape as we wait for a train to pass. How much would barriers cost to install? Surely they’d be worth it. With the scarcity of trains in New Zealand you’d have to be very unlucky to get caught out on a level crossing but the Ministry of Transport figures reveal that between 1998 and 2004 there were 158 accidents at level crossings – 55 of them fatal. That seems like 55 too many deaths to me.

Ruapehu is enveloped in cloud as usual as the pylons march along the desert road. It is dry, windy and barren with nothing but studs of tussock punctuating the swathes of dirt. Caravans and boats crawl across the landscape with snail trails of impatient traffic in their wake.

Passing through Waiouru, warning signs advise us that ‘Army exercises are conducted at any time’ and ‘live firing and explosions’. They suggest we stay on the road for our own safety. Where else are we going to go? The road twists, turns and dips like a rollercoaster in a bizarre lunar theme park.

Long-haired kids in t-shirts and low-rider shorts swing on the gun barrels and stand on the tanks’ turrets at the Army Museum. The Oasis Hotel looks stunningly uninviting. I know it’s the end of the desert road (there’s that ‘humour’ again), but you’d be more tempted to die of thirst.

Straight roads are lined with uniform fir trees and bright bushes of gorse. Sharp-beaked magpies wait for roadkill and the clouds are pushed out to the edge of the horizon like frothy suds around a bottomless blue pool.

Turangi is apparently the trout capital of the world, with an obligatory model of a big trout. The scenery changes to babbling brooks, weeping willows and neat roads fringed with green and pampas grasses. We catch our first sighting of Lake Taupo at Mission Bay where two black swans usher their cygnets jealously away from onlookers.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Lake Taupo Challenge

This is another interruption to the Italy reminisces, because last weekend we went up to Taupo for the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge. It is a fabulous event and really well organised (there are over 10,000 cyclists in one event!), but the registration area before the race is pretty intimidating. Queues of people shuffle like sheep following arrows to pick up drink bottles and bananas. Hundreds of hyped-up cyclists talk nonsense and we run away as soon as we can. I am doing a relay leg so I have to hand my bike over. It is to be racked on the back of a trailer and guarded by security before being taken to the changeover point. I can only hope I will see it tomorrow.

Meanwhile the maxi-enduro riders are already out on the course. These nutters circumnavigate the lake four times past the signs they will come to despise – ‘hills, glorious hills’; ‘You’re going to love this hill’; ‘New seat next year’. They wear pink helmets to signify their status which are faintly ridiculous, but I guess if they can put up with cycling 640km, they can put up with looking like a prat.

Driving back to National Park where we’re staying for the night, Him Outdoors notes nonchalantly, ‘It’s a big lake’. We follow cars bristling with bikes past signs warning motorists to take a break if they’re sleepy and that there are going to be 1,000s of cyclists ahead so to expect delays.


On the morning of the race we have a very early start. I am not good in the mornings and 5am is not a time I’m familiar with. Even so, the boys nearly miss their start – which is arranged depending on the time in which you expect to complete the race. They abandon the car and ride to the start line leaving me to try and park it somewhere in the packed little town with closed roads and detours.

I clip clop to the bus loading area in my bike shoes – this particular footwear was definitely not made for walking and my feet are soon cramped and pinched. People are chatting and wishing each other luck for their up-coming ride; it's a great atmosphere and everyone is looking forward to their day out.

The bus to Tihoi (the changeover for leg 2 – my leg) turns up and I scramble aboard. Years of elbowing my way to a seat on the school coach have clearly paid off as I get onto the first bus – who says my education was wasted? Unfortunately we don’t leave any earlier and sit breathing in diesel fumes for half an hour - that'll teach me to be so pushy! There is a lot of nervous energy and excitement as people laugh and joke and make new friends.

When we are finally in motion we pass a load of riders struggling up the hills. The girl next to me sees her team-mate and starts to panic that she won’t arrive at the transition area in time. She does.

At the transition I manage to get to the portaloo before the queue stretches around the field. It is hot and there is plenty of water and sun cream on offer. I collect my bike, which thankfully made it in one piece. I just hope the tyres don’t explode in the heat, although everything else seems fine. The crew on racking and un-racking duty do a great job and the bikes are all lined up waiting for their riders. At the end of each leg, the bikes are taken off you and returned to the start/finish as if by magic. It's like having your own personal ostler/valet/whater-the-cycling-equivalent-may-be.

I have no idea when our first leg riders started or how long we expect them to take. I am in one of the relay teams sponsored by Kone, where Him Outdoors works and I only met my fellow riders last night. I am in the originally-named Team Kone 2 and I wait patiently with the person who is doing the same leg for Team Kone 1.

The transition area is merry chaos, with no one knowing where they are meant to be handing over or waiting for their incoming rider. There is no official mount or dismount line and people ride around the paddock calling out the name and number of their team-mate. To their credit, all the crew and waiting riders hlep out and there is a chorus of cycling calls - David Attenborough would have a field day.

The first rider from Team Kone 1 arrives having completed a fabulous leg. Our rider is not far behind – he says he has done no training but he has youth on his side and you can do anything when you’re 18. I set off in hot pursuit.

Once I’m on the bike, I really enjoy the ride. It has been described as undulating but this is a euphemism – I would call it hilly. I’m good on the flat but unfortunately there isn’t any – it’s just straight up and down and Waihaha Hill is far from amusing. I overtake people going up hill and they fly past me on the way down. I descend like a womble and use my brakes far too much, but I’m scared of coming off and my imagination runs riot as to just how much I could injure myself.

I get one little glimpse of the lake, shimmering in the distance – for a round the lake ride, there are very few times when the riders actually see it and it's a welcome sight when they do. There is also a lot of litter on the road for a supposedly eco-friendly event. Some of the drink bottles and energy bar wrappers have been dropped by accident, but some have been tossed away to the roadside by riders deliberately shedding excess ballast.

The road is packed with cyclists of all shapes and sizes in gleaming lycra. There are crap riders on good bikes and vice versa, by which I mean good riders on crap bikes, not good bikes on crap riders. Some riders chat to each other and random strangers. Some like it; some don’t. One girl has ‘talk to me’ written on her calves in felt-tip pen, so I guess she does. It's like a festival on wheels.

I’m surprised the roads aren’t closed. There is some real muppet driving in evidence. One farmer hurtles past in his combine harvester – why does he have to do it today? That’s farmers for you; ‘Get orf my land!’ I see several near misses and a couple of ambulances screech by.

There is some shocking cycling too – some of these people clearly have no idea how to cycle in bunches and have yet to discover on which left they are meant to ride. A bloke riding with aero bars (never a good idea in a crowd) tucks into my kidneys to draft off me – if you’re so skilled at cycle technique; what are you doing back here? It's all generally pedalled in good spirits though.

I am quite pleased with my ride of 1:40 and I come in before the other team. Their leg three rider complains, ‘Damn, I wanted at least a ten minute lead into this leg to have any chance of holding him off.’ I try to look apologetic.

Our rider is on an old dunger of a bicycle which he found in his garage the day before. He has dusted off the cobwebs and raised the seat from a couple of decades ago and it’s almost as good as new. Despite the fact that his pedal falls off three kilometres from the end of his ride, he does a phenomenally fast time and helps us to a Team Kone victory. Our fourth leg rider enjoys his outing alongside the lake and later when we’re all contesting who had the most difficult section, he quietly admits that his was probably the most pleasant.

Back at Taupo I try and hunt for Him Outdoors who has not got his cell phone and will have no idea where I have parked the car. I look for him in the obvious places but he is not in any of the pubs. Neither is he at the finish; where the buses are meant to be dropping off their passengers; or in the food and drink tent.

How on earth did we cope before cell phones – I suppose we made plans in advance and actually stuck to them; how quaint! I find myself humming, ‘What Would Brian Boitano Do?’ as I wince about in pinching shoes and muggy heat for an hour. I go to the place where my bike is meant to be returned. It isn’t there yet, but I bump into Him Outdoors by accident. He has blitzed his previous time by twenty minutes so is pretty pleased with himself.

All is forgiven. The Guinness helps. The black magic is, well, magic and revives us all. The rest of the relay folk go back to National Park for a barbeque but we hang about for the prize-giving; we might win a car as a spot prize! There are so many people and food tents it resembles a mini-music festival, but without the bands.

The ride is advertised as the Round Lake Taupo Challenge and the organisers insist it is not a race. People I speak to disagree; ‘You’ve come to race. Why else would you pull on a number?’ ‘Any rider who trains three times a week has a competitive nature. Events that pretend they are not races try to batter that spirit out of people. This is a depressing state for the future of New Zealand sport.’ Of course it is a challenge - and an achievement for everyone who completes their section, but you are also competing - whether against yourself; the clock; the weather; your peers. Competition does not have to be aggressive and it is not a dirty word.

We meet a bloke covered in supporter stickers – he has done the race several times before but had a heart attack three months ago and was warned against it this year on doctor’s orders. He has taken on the highly important role of support crew instead. Spectators mill about the finish chute, urging on those who are still struggling home. The big sun reflected in the still lake makes a fantastic vista but I doubt they’re looking at it.

Everyone is welcomed home with applause, but the biggest cheers are reserved for tandems, children and enduro riders. One child goes by on a bike with stabilisers. He sprints to the finish line to try and beat his friends. I don’t think they would agree with the non-competitive aspect either.

We don’t win the car – some 15 year old does – but Him Outdoors does get a tin of gloss paint. He actually came 66th in his division and 213th overall (out of 4738). The New Zealand air force put on a show and we all ooh and aah at the loop-the-loops and crossovers. There are a lot of tired but happy people lying about on the grass or moving in slow and slightly odd ways. We spot friends from Wellington – he used clip-in-pedals for the first time and now he can’t move his feet.

Back at base we finish our night with beers and made-up awards – our support crew have organised prizes for the sublime; ‘fastest time’ to the ridiculous; ‘best nuts in lycra’. One of the solo riders has brought his guitar – not only can he play fantastically well; he also has a great line in cover versions from The Sex Pistols, David Bowie, The Ramones and The Who.

Him Outdoors gets stuck into the whisky and coke with another solo rider (‘Don’t tell my clients; I’m a personal trainer’) while I decide now is a good time to wash off the layers of sun cream and sweat and crawl into my sleeping bag.

N.B. Names withheld to protect the clueless

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Coffee Culture in Italy

In a bustling café in Rimini men stand at the counter and knock back tiny cups of powerful caffeine – ristretto is ‘very short black coffee’ – shuddering as they swallow, almost as if it is a chore – so why do they do it? It costs more to sit down.

I ask for a latte and receive a glass of milk. If you ask for a caffe é latte, you also get a small jug of coffee (a shot of double strength coffee – not espresso) which you add to your milk and watch the colours and flavours mingle. These are generally only drunk at breakfast and made in the privacy of your own home (and certainly without froth).

They are akin to the French café au lait, and what Americans call a latte would be considered an abomination on the continent. US lattes were first made in Berkeley in America and are basically a cappuccino with extra milk added. What they call a latte; New Zealander’s call a flat white. This is all getting confusing.

But don’t worry, because you can only drink milky coffee in the mornings unless you are uncouth or a tourist – which seems to amount to the same thing. Otherwise you have an espresso, or an espresso doppio (a double espresso) or a caffe Americano which is an espresso served with a jug of hot water so you can make your own – they can’t bring themselves to adulterate the coffee in this way. New Zealanders call that a long black.

Italians are also known to drink moccaccino (which is a third of espresso with two thirds of steamed milk mixed with chocolate), caffe macchiato (espresso ‘stained/marked’ with a dash of milk) or latte macchiato (vice-versa; i.e. milk ‘stained’ with a dash of espresso). They do not drink triple Venti nonfat decafe latte white chocolate blended mocha frappucino whip. Without froth.

They do get a bit weird though with the old espresso confuso, which is a sort of coffee desert – espresso mixed with a chocolate gelato. Very confuso indeed. And the freddoccino is a cold (freddo) cappuccino. I’m not sure if they make these specially or just leave them lying around until they get cold. My mum’s good at that. I bet they don’t then put them in the microwave and forget about them though.

My very favourite is the caffe corretto, which is a shot of espresso, 'corrected' with a shot of grappa. Wow! That's enough to blow your socks off. We were walking in the snow in Dolomites for four hours and stumbled back off the mountain to a cutesy cafe by a lake when we discovered these. I could have done the walk all over again. Well, maybe not, but for about ten minutes I thought I could. Mind you, I thought I could leap tall buildings in a single bound. I was wrong.