Wattie Ink. Pro Rachel McBride Travels to New Zealand

This winter I’ve had the amazing opportunity to spend a couple months in New Zealand, where summer is raging like never before. This smaller island country is best known for it’s friendly citizens, deep Maori culture, formidable rugby team and lack of poisonous monsters (such as what is found in the larger neighbour to the west, Australia). Here’s a little taste of my adventures so far and travel guide for anyone who is considering coming “down under” for a little training or racing vacation.

My first stop was a small town on the North Island in the Waikato district called Cambridge. Located between Auckland to the north and triathlon-famous Taupo to the south, Cambridge is home to High Performance Sport New Zealand headquarters, including a world class training facility and velodrome. Many of the NZ national teams call this place home, including triathlon, cycling, rowing, rugby and horseback riding. The facility itself is very new. One fun feature is a small gym located in the centre of the velodrome that is open to the public. It was pretty cool to get to watch the women’s team pursuit training for their national championships, while I was doing my own workout. 

I had the great opportunity to join up with coach Jon Brown and some of the Triathlon NZ short course elites for some training. Let me tell you, these young ITU pups kicked my ass in the pool, and I loved every minute of it. I’m very thankful to the group for welcoming me.  It was a great start to my trip.

The Waikato area is great for cycling with lots of flatter or rolling farmland on quiet roads. There are also great trails (“tracks” or “tramps” in kiwi speak) for hiking or running such as the Maungatautari Mountain Sactuary. Swimming is easy in the 50m outdoor pool, cycling distance from pretty much anywhere in town, or open water in Lake Karapiro where you will often see the rowers out doing their thing.

A big summer youth event throughout the country is the Weetabix Tryathlon, a non-competitive super short triathlon (100m/4km/1.5km), that about 20,000 kids ages 7-15 participate in every year. My 9-year-old friend Charlie, a member of the wonderful family I was staying with, participated in his first event. With his “Canadian pro triathlete coach” we went through the whole race distance the weekend before and did some transition practice to make sure he had a good handle on what to expect. He had so much confidence going into the event and totally crushed it. Little sister Issey was super bummed she has a few years still before she is old enough to participate. Three thousand – yes, three THOUSAND kids participated in the local event. It was truly an incredible sight to see! 

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As Challenge Wanaka is a bucket list race for me and I knew my pro buddy Laura Siddall was going to be crushing it, I decided to head down to go cheer and explore the area. In typical NZ tourist style, I rented a sleeper van (basically a minivan with a bed in the back) to make it a 10-day South Island camping adventure. 

At any time during the summer (and probably winter) in all parts of the country, you will see oodles of travelers in campervans, caravans and sleeper vans driving the highways and seeing the sights. You will also see a myriad of backpackers, many hitchhiking or bussing all around the country. The van life is really a fantastic way to travel on one island or the other as there is ample camping wherever you go – from Holiday Parks, to government campsites or “freedom camping.” I say “one island or the other” because traveling between the islands with a vehicle by the ferry is prohibitively expensive. 

Christchurch is a great hub to start a south island trip as it is easy to get to by air or land. My route took me on a 1300km circuit along the inland scenic highway south to Wanaka, across to the west coast at Haast, past the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, all the way up to pancake rocks of Punakaiki and back to Christchurch across Arthur’s Pass.

Highlights included: free camping on the shores of brilliantly teal-coloured Lake Pukaki with the backdrop of snow-capped mountains, cheering friends and making new ones at Challenge Wanaka, hiking up to the terminal face of the Franz Josef Glacier, lazy beach days at Punakaiki and climbing on the impressive and strange Castle Hill rocks.

As for training, New Zealand is known for its hikes/tramps. A lot of these trails are easily accessible and very run-able. With a population of only 4 million, there are a lot of unpopulated areas. So pretty much anywhere you go, you can find some kind of trail to explore. 

On the west coast roads there is rarely a shoulder, but there are still a TONNE of cycle tourists on the roads, especially in the inland scenic route. New Zealand has actually just completed a bike route that runs the length of the country. How awesome is that! The traffic is usually pretty respectful, and if you make it off the beaten path, you may not see a vehicle for hours. Plenty of time and space to make friends with all the cows and horses and sheepies and llamas….

Unfortunately, swimming is a no-go in the rough and dangerous west coast ocean. Though I did love watching some brave surfers out there amongst the crashing waves. However there are lots of swimmable lakes inland. One of my fondest memories is a warm, drizzly swim in Lake Paringa outside of Hokitika. The west coast weather pattern seemed to be mostly grey and sometimes rainy in the mornings, clearing to brilliantly sunny in the afternoons. 

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Just a few things to keep in mind while travelling this route: 

1) Bring bug spray for the sand flies on the west coast. These little buggers are a bit bigger than fruit flies and pack a mosquito-like bite. They seem to love some people more than others, just like mosquitoes, which meant they had a hay-day feasting on me. Thankfully there are not so quick and easy to kill with a smack. There are plenty of NZ-made sand fly-specific repellents and bite soothers at the local shops.

2) So many tourists! It’s a bit of a shock going from inland to the coast as the roads and towns were suddenly packed with tour buses, RVs and just generally more people than I’d seen in the rest of my trip. Apparently this year was particularly busy. Word is getting out: New Zealand rules.

3) “Free wifi” is challenging to come by and when you do get access, it can be a pretty bad connection. I know, I know – #firstworldproblems. It’s good to tune out every now and then. So this was more a blessing than a curse for me, but it can be frustrating when you are trying to book travel or accommodation en route, let loved ones know you are alive or, most importantly, Instagram. I suppose getting a NZ-based phone/data plan might be helpful, but I seem to be managing just fine without.

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Out of all of the areas I visited on this little tour, Wanaka really seemed like the most ideal training grounds and a place (race!) I’d really like to come back to: great lake to swim in, apparently an okay 25m pool (I chose the lake) and a decent gym. The roads are some of the most scenic and quiet I have ever experienced in my life, and the tramps into the hills and along the river (featured in the brilliant Challenge Wanaka course) are plentiful and picturesque. There is a reason why some of Triathlon NZ elites hole up here for weeks of summer training!

One more month of building back up the training in the New Zealand summer. Stay tuned for Part 2 of my adventures! In the meantime, I’m going to jump in my togs and jandals and go for a dip.