The Rainbow Road: Riding through the storm

Cows are oddly encouraging companions on otherwise lonely gravel roads.

They stare as if a soaked, slow-moving cyclist is the most intriguing sight to pass them by and it's kind of nice to feel like what I'm doing is interesting to somebody.

At times, exactly why I decided to cycle from Nelson to Hanmer through the mountains on the cusp of winter eluded me.

Plus, with frozen hands clawed to the handlebars and toes long bereft of any feeling, the cows' apparent indifference to the miserable weather was rather inspiring.

The rationale for the trip was to prepare for a bike touring expedition later this year along a section of the Silk Road.

I've always loved tramping, and the appeal of doing essentially the same thing but being able to carry more stuff, cover more ground and go a bit faster down hills drew me to cycle touring.

The Rainbow Road: Riding through the storm
Photo credit: Newshub / Sam Smoothly.

So there I was, leaving my grandparents' house in Richmond on a bright sunny Easter Saturday, bike laden with food, solar panels and camping gear, bound for day one's destination: St Arnaud.

The plan was to ride New Zealand's highest public road through to Hanmer Springs - 112km of dirt and corrugations through Rainbow and Molesworth Stations, passing landscapes that transition from scree-scarred mountains to rolling tussocklands.

But the 80km from Nelson to St Arnaud was dull.

It's ugly, scrubby country, peppered with forestry and farmland, but not much else.

Roughly 8km from St Arnaud, in the gathering darkness, my boyfriend pulled up next to me and said it was "20 minutes until the place with beer closes".

I got right off my bike, because there's no place for heroism when a cold beer awaits.

And I should mention here that yes, I had a support vehicle; but the aforementioned situation was the only time I hitched a ride over the four-day trip, and I think we can all agree a Panhead is a very good reason.

The next day I rode through beech forest draped in thick mist, many frigid fords and met with the Wairau River.

With 35km under the belt, I decided it was time for breakfast, but the warmth of a bacon sandwich and tea didn't linger long as the temperature tumbled to 5C and a steady rain set in.

Sam pulled over and asked, "Are you cold?"

"No, no, I'm good," I replied.

The Rainbow Road: Riding through the storm
Photo credit: Newshub / Sam Smoothly.

The landscape passed in a wet blur as I grinded on, puffing heat into my chilled fingers and trying in vain to wiggle warmth into my toes.

We stopped to pay the toll road fee to a man in an oilskin hat who was also selling beech tree honey.

Sam asked again if I was definitely OK.

I was cold but I thought I could keep going.

That attitude lasted approximately another 5km before I was ensconced in a thick blanket in the truck, hands wrapped around the life-giving elixir of two-minute noodles and my colourless feet pressed to the heater vent.

I consider the Silk Road's Pamir Highway and its absence of both the boyfriend and the truck, and conclude a better rain jacket is needed. I also decided then that the phrases "water resistant", "water repellent" and "waterproof" are not so much semantics, but rather important detail to take heed of.

I rode through Hell's Gate, a narrow gorge where the river hugs the road and leaves the wide valley and cows behind, exchanging green for grey.

Scree bursts from the mountains' sides as if spewing from split seams and is kept from swallowing the road by a thin tangle of golden tussock and matagouri.

The ever-present pylons looming overhead marred the landscape, but without them this wildness would be untracked, inaccessible by bike or car.

As my tyres grinded over what resembled the tailings of a quarry, I decided we'd been flattering this goat track with the term "road" for long enough.

I arrived at our intended campsite, Coldwater Creek, and realised there's nothing about the bleak, wet clearing that had me enthused about pitching the tent.

Three cyclists gathered around a member of their party grimly changing a tyre told me it's "just 10km to the next shelter".

"And it has a woodburner," one added.

Suddenly, I was imbued with fresh confidence in my legs and ability of my core to maintain a comfortable temperature and told Sam we were pushing on to Sedgemere Shelter.

He was unfazed - in the truck, he could be there in 20 minutes; it was going to take me two hours of slow and relentless climbing.

But the reward came in the gorge opening wide in a vast tussock-carpeted valley, the road sweeping around the hillside and across the river to where the shelter sat in a small paddock.

The Rainbow Road: Riding through the storm
Photo credit: Newshub / Sam Smoothly.

Appreciation for mankind's discovery of fire-lighting is rarely greater than when a roaring backcountry stove is slowly crisping one's saturated and muddy clothing as rain whistles outside.

They say the wonderful thing about these trips is that they help you better appreciate the luxuries of home. This wisdom was clearly lost on Trevor from Australia, who'd appealed in the visitor's book for sightings of a lost pillow.

A second entry from months later revealed Trevor had returned, but whether he'd been lured back in search of the pillow or the high country fishing was unclear.

The following day brought another long, winding climb to the road's highest point: Island Saddle, at 1347m.

Loose gravel and heavy panniers made for a cautious descent across the boundary into Canterbury, where Lake Tennyson hides beneath a shroud of mist.

A lone shelter, ineffectual against the howling wind and rain, displays information boards telling the stories of the rabbiters who endured this desolate place tasked with a fool's errand.

A meal of hot chorizo, cherry tomato and pesto pasta feels offensively opulent before the weathered sepia men watching on.

The fourth day brings with it an unfamiliar, warm light curling out from wispy clouds, and a calm that gives the lake a mirror-like quality.

Heartened by the sight of blue sky and no need for a jacket or even a fleece, I set off towards Hanmer Springs.

There are no more cows, but two horses chew rosehip pensively in a yellow paddock.

They're indifferent to my arrival, but that's OK.

With hot pools just 35 km away, morale is high.