To The Lighthouse

One of the features of living in New Zealand is the weather. Nearly twenty years ago, after a few weeks of living here, we moved into a cute little cottage at the bottom of the owner’s garden on a January day so hot the tarmac melted and I left a pool of sweat with every step. We unpacked our meagre possessions, stuffed jeans and fleeces into a suitcase and pushed that out of the way under the bed, then flaked out on the lawn, condensation dripping from the bottles of beer we held, which soon became almost too warm to drink. The next day the wind lashed horizontal rain into the window so hard I was convinced the glass would break. We shivered in our jeans and fleeces and discovered that the cottage might be cute but had as much protection from the vagaries of the elements as a tent. When the rain cleared the wind was still fierce enough to blow your hair off, sending clouds scudding across the sky with the speed of missiles. It was like being within range of a lighthouse, bright with sun one minute, dark with the threat of evil the next.

A week ago the wind howled and light rain that swirled in imitation of a tornado turned into heavy rain that even the gale couldn’t direct, flattening plants and raking deep gouges in shingled paths. It hit the windows like a jetwash, streaming down them and clearing gathered dust. Anyone walking in it was in danger of being beaten to death or swept away into a gutter. The mercury flat out refused to budge and it was freezing. We’ve been here long enough to know that patience is rewarded and a bad storm is usually followed by a couple of days of clear blue sky and little wind. Lucky timing meant it arrived for the weekend, the morning air still frigid with frost but the sun doing its best. Time to get the bikes out.

Around the eastern side of the harbour, past Eastbourne, a wide track skirts the edge of the water. Last week wind and tide slammed a catamaran into the low sea wall here, scattering debris across the road. Today is still and the water wobbles around rough rocks. My hip creaks as I swing my leg across the bike and park my bum on the seat – it’s been a few weeks. As it doesn’t take long for my body to stiffen with lack of exercise, it takes only a couple of km for it to ease into the motion of peddling and remember how to do this. There’s no wind to tell of but cold air drifts from the south and bites my cheeks as we ride into it. Thankfully the track is flat so I don’t need to worry about trying to brake hard with frozen fingers.

We ride slowly, enjoying the feel of fresh air on our bodies as they warm slowly with the slight effort of pushing the pedals. In the dark shade, where the sun has yet to reach, cold lingers and our breath fogs around us, the intake of air icy in our lungs. I speed through to the feeble warmth at the other side. The land rises to our left, sometimes craggy and steep, sometimes bush-covered low hills. Rocks jut from the sea to our right and the city sunbathes across the water, pale houses climbing behind it; ahead of us is the harbour entrance, the snow-topped mountains of the Kaikoura Ranges on the South Island gleaming in the distance.

We pass the twin lighthouses of Pencarrow, one perched on a large rock on the shoreline, the other perched atop the cliffs above – some years ago we climbed the 100 or so hair-raising steps that lead to it and I don’t feel the need to do that again. At Fitzroy Bay the cliffs fall away where a gate leads to pleasant walks alongside small lakes, and the track dips slightly, poles alongside suggesting that it can be underwater when the tide is high. I pedal faster, just in case.

We rumble over cattle grids and I lock my wrists, elbows and shoulders rigid so to keep the wheel straight and avoid a nasty accident. Of course this means the jolt of the bars hits my joints like a sledgehammer. I’ll pay for that later. After an hour of relatively easy peddling the track divides, the path right continuing ahead to skirt the headland, the left going uphill to the lighthouse at Baring Head. Neil cycles, I get off and push until the gradient lessens and I can pedal without killing myself. Sheep pause in their grazing to watch as we pass but, unlike in many areas, they are used to visitors – we’re now in the East Harbour Regional Park and the southern tip of Wellington Harbour. Muddy tracks through the grass tell of how sodden the ground is and my wheels slip and slide, losing traction and wobbling me to a walk. It’s not much easier keeping my feet from doing the same and I giggle my way through sloppy mud and soggy grass, a sheep watching my progress as if wondering what the fuss is about.

We prop our bikes against a fence and wander around the buildings. Up higher the wind is a bit perky, not surprising as there is nothing but sea between this point and the frozen continent of Antarctica. As one of the least remote lighthouses in New Zealand this was considered a good posting, but it must be hell up here in a storm and I’m not sure I’d like to be here then. Maybe a good job it’s now automated.

We haven’t brought a picnic, thinking it would be too cold to sit out, and we munch on bananas and muesli bars to fortify our legs for the ride back. The return trip is busier, older couples on e-bikes, young families enjoying the winter sun. Having passed a sign at the entrance saying dogs aren’t allowed on the track because it is lambing season I’m surprised to see so many furry creatures on four legs and can only presume that guide dogs come in all shapes and sizes.

Another storm is forecast to pass through in a couple of days. Plenty of time for my legs and backside to recover before the next ride.

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