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Cycle touring  in New Zealand.

The South Island (2000 Km)

December 2009

overall route map, south island NZIt may only be a few months since my cycle tour in Queensland, but that has not stopped me from finding another cycling destination and getting back on the road again. This time in New Zealand, the south island. And of course there is a geological excuse for the cycling in the form of a 4 day conference in Oamaru, some 100 Km north of Dunedin on the east coast.

So late on saturday night I packed my tiny pannier of possessions and rode off to the airport on my REACH folding bike. At the airport I folded and bagged the bike without problems - I must be getting better at this! At checkin my total baggage, including the bike, was 21 Kg - heavier than expected. I must be carrying too much toothpaste and I need to revise my packing-list! After 4 restless hours on the plane to Brisbane, I changed terminals and was soon flying off to Dunedin, arriving there about 4pm. Although I should have been tired, I was too excited to notice as I reassembled the bike and rode off towards the city to find a motel.

Now this was supposed to be easy as it was just 25 Km to downtown. But I had failed to consider the hills! Dunedin is not situated on a nice flat river plain, but is instead within the core of a recently extinct volcano, complete with all sorts of rugged topography and steep roads. At least the ride was scenically interesting and the weather, although cool for me, (15 C) was dry and tolerable.

The plan for monday was to ride the short (115 Km) distance north to Oamaru. Simple I thought - probably only a morning ride with a southerly tailwind to help! But no, NZ has its own special welcome for brash ozzies like me! And this started as soon as I found the highway northwards, which climbed up over the rugged and seriously steep volcanic topography. Combined with this was a very stiff northerly headwind and I spent an endless time crawling slowly northwards. This was shaping up to be a very challenging day of riding! At least this gave me plenty of time to study the pillow lava structures in the basalt road cuttings as I crept along. After about 25 Km I was over the crest of the range enjoying a few well earned downhills and now even the wind had relented. My previous concerns quickly melted away with the gentle sunshine and I began to enjoy the ride. Yippee! There were still undulations to enjoy and sections of coastline alongside the highway to view as I pedaled through vast green pastures populated with cattle and sheep.

I noted the lack of forested areas and wondered if this was due to clearing to make open grazing pastures. I later found out that the forest clearing happened when the Maori arrived and burnt the forest as they hunted for Moas. But this explanation is contentious and it may have been de-forested by farming activities.

Later in the ride I had to cross a small range of hills and as I neared them the wind again became my adversary, disappearing again once I had crossed the range. It seems the topography controls the wind and the two of them are in an evil conspiracy to make life difficult for northbound cyclists! But not difficult enough to stop me reaching Oamaru by mid afternoon and mostly enjoying the ride, the scenery and the challenges along the way.

After spending the first day listening to talks at the conference, the second day was devoted to local field trips and we visited some of the areas which I planned to cycle to in a few days time after the conference. This was a serious reality check as I noted the steep gradients and numerous hills along the way. But the main problem is the wind, which was very intense all day long. Some of our excursion was cancelled as one of the parks was closed due to the fire risk caused by the extremely strong wind.  But the locals all said this fierce wind was not unusual! Apparently I am about to embark upon the cycling tour of New Windyland. This may be a more challenging tour than I had expected!

The conference finished mid afternoon of friday so I had a few spare hours and I decided to ride out into the wind to see just how hard my impending tour was going to be. I rode north with a strong crosswind, then back south and the wind gusts almost succeeded in their attempts to blow me off the road or into the following traffic. It really was difficult to remain upright and ride in a straight line. This wind was going to be tough to live with. That evening the TV news showed pictures of camper vans and semi-trailer trucks that had been blown over not far away from where I was cycling. No wonder I was having trouble. My tour start tomorrow was looking problematic!

But on saturday morning the incessant wind eased - becoming just a brisk southerly breeze. This was a great relief, so despite the headwind and overcast skies it was quite pleasant cycling south along the coast with sandy beaches and abundant seaweed. After 75 Km I reached the start of a range I had to cross and suddenly the wind was the least of my problems. I swear these new zealanders build roads straight up 20% gradients and it took 2 hours to cover the next 18 Km to reach the Macraes mine.

macraes mine pit

But it sure was fun descending the other side of the range. I now know my bike can reach 75 Km/h without self destructing. But the driver (me) was close to panic, if not self destruction!

My destination for the day was the tiny village of Hyde, once a train station on the Otago central railway which has now been converted into a 200Km long rail trail mecca for cyclists. I reached Hyde about 3pm and there was a "vacancy" sign hanging outside the Inn, so I had a coffee while I contemplated staying there for the night. But as I relaxed, some 15 cyclists arrived from the trail - and they were all pre-booked to stay there, so the Inn was booked out. The "vacancy" sign out the front, was merely meaningless kiwi-speak as the place had been booked out weeks ago! But the cafe staff decided to find alternative accommodation for me and rang around several local bed & breakfast places. Eventually they found one 5 Km away, to which I rode. This was a superbly refurbished 100 year old farmhouse and I was the only occupant for the night. It was totally luxurious and a far better alternative than the overcrowded Inn back in the village!

With an early start next morning, I decided to ride the pavement rather than the rock gravel coated rail-trail for which my bike tyres were unsuitable. The sun was out and trying hard to warm the cool breeze and the cycling was good as I traveled through vast treeless grassy valleys. But after lunch the road turned south into the intensifying cold southerly wind and the cycling became much harder. While cycling I play a little game. My MP3 player randomly selects the next song from those present in its memory. Whenever it selects my favourite song, "Nemo", I ride intensely to see how far I can travel while it plays, giving me my nemo-distance! In Darwin this distance is about 2.3 Km, but this morning my distance was 1.9 Km. Maybe this was the wind, or the pannier load slowing me. Later that afternoon my Nemo-distance was down to just 1.6 Km - so I was clearly tiring as I battled the headwind. By 4 pm the wind had worn me down, but I had reached the cosy town of Alexandra, so I quit for the day while wondering what nasties the weather would deal me tomorrow.

The daily weather forecast is essential watching for cyclists, and the forecast showed rain over the entire country except for a dry area in the far south at Gore, so that became my next destination. It was a cold and hilly ride southwards high up on the canyon walls of the Clutha river, with the cloud base concealing the hilltops alongside me. Eventually the road dropped down to the river level and the temperature warmed as I rode along a valley full of cherry orchards. As I continued southwards, this valley opened out into extensive farmland plains which are the most productive in NZ.

After a long 140Km I arrived in Gore and met Derrick and Sue who are keen cyclists and involved with a local bikeshop. They graciously invited me to stay with them and we exchanged many bike stories. Derrick showed me photos of their many mountain bike tours to stunningly scenic areas that road cyclists like me cannot access.

My southern areas excursion continued with a long ride westwards to Te Anau, an area en-route to the tourist destination of Milford sound and the mountainous west coast. Tourism was obviously rampant as hundreds of camper vans were traveling the same road. But about 30 Km before my destination it began to rain intermittently and this became a cold and long survival ride. With minimal warm clothing and little wet weather gear my survival strategy was to ride hard to keep warm. I sure did need a long hot shower to thaw out once I reached town. I cannot comment on the scenery yet as nothing is visible through the mist and rain clouds.

Maybe tomorrow the clouds will open and show me the scenic lake and mountains. And give me an opportunity to escape this tourist trap and head back northwards to the sunshine.

After my cold and misty arrival in Te Anau, the weather was still unfriendly next morning and I was unable to see the lake and mountains at all. It was too cold to wait around or to ride west into the mountains, so I retraced my route and rode back east out of town and once again it rained en-route making things even colder. After 130 cold Km I stopped short of my destination at a small town which happened to have a pub with a lovely warm wood fire burning. Yes, it is officially summer here, but even the locals have their fires going! I decided to stay here in Kingston for the night rather than continue on another 60 Km in the cold.

This was a fortuitous decision as next morning it was sunny and pleasant and it was really great riding north towards Queenstown along the sunny lake shore with the high mountain backdrop. This was the real NZ in full glory.

kingston lake nz

Soon I reached Queenstown which was packed with tourists, although it was apparently the quiet season! After bargaining for a good deal I spent a luxurious night in an upmarket resort hotel, in preparation for tomorrow's serious riding challenge. And the great thing about resort towns is the choice of restaurants; I found 5 Indian restaurants and of course had an indian meal!

Next day it was time to ride the Crown Range pass - the highest paved road in NZ. After 6 steep switchbacks, I thought i was at the peak, but the road kept climbing across an alpine meadow and then I saw yet another series of switchbacks ahead of me. Uh-oh - this was going to hurt! And it did. It took about 3 hours to climb to the crest and it felt like is was 15% gradient for most of the way. After a brief rest, I commenced the descent but a regular thumping warned me that my rear tyre had developed a snake and would soon blow out, so I installed the spare tyre I always carry. After the climb it was a long and relatively gentle descent to Wanaka, another resort town jammed with restaurants, but fewer tourists, thankfully. Wanaka is on a lake shore surrounded by rugged mountains and is a base for exploring the nearby Mt Aspiring national park.

While sitting in a cafe enjoying a well deserved coffee, I met again 2 cycle tourists I had met in Hyde 7 days previously. They had now morphed into organic farm workers, part of the "WOOF" network of traveling workers and were helping plant trees on a nearby farm for a while in return for food and accommodation. After another indian meal that evening I was ready to head north across the Lindis pass. On the map, this did not appear to be too difficult, but the map lied to me! It was a long 140Km day with no support towns for 80 Km as I crossed the 970m high pass. The countryside was open grass plains and steep hillsides as I ascended the valley. It was deceptive as I often thought I was traveling downhill, but my pedaling effort revealed the truth that it was very much uphill! With little else to do while cycling, I studied the behavior of the farm animals as i passed by them. Sheep usually were startled by my approach and ran away. Deer were always startled and ran away. But cattle usually stood up and ran towards me. Apparently they saw my bright neon yellow socks moving in rhythmic circles and were mesmerised into thinking I must be edible! Or perhaps I merely looked like the mobile feed bins the graziers use.

After an unexpectedly long and slow time I reached the crest of the pass and the fast downhill soon made me forget the slow climb. It was then a fast 20 Km of absolutely flat road along a wide grass filled valley with a tail wind to reach Omarama, a town whose main reason to exist is as a stopping place for people who really wanted to be somewhere else but could not get there today. Here I met 5 other cycle tourists, 2 from Germany, 2 from Switzerland and one from Belgium and we clogged up the supermarket parking lot with bikes as we exchanged vital cyclist route information.

After crossing 2 serious mountain passes in 2 days, and with the weather-map threatening rain, the next day became a short (90 Km) easy morning with an early stop to avoid the rain showers.
Now it is time to hope for sunshine for the remaining 4 days to Christchurch. But that could be a tall order for the NZ weather! 

After my recuperation in Lake Tekapo, location of an astronomical observatory, I had a critical decision to make. I had used my spare tyre and there were few chances to buy a replacement. Should I detour to a big town to get a new tyre as a spare? Or perhaps I should hope the recently installed tyre would last the remaining few days. I decided to make a detour to Timaru, the only place likely to have suitable tyres, even though this was a 30 Km detour and I thought I was being a little paranoid about my tyre problems.

It was a pleasant fast ride through the green pasture lands and I reached Timaru (80Km) by lunchtime. The first bike shop did not have any 20 inch tyres, and directed me to a second shop. This was hard to find and while riding in circles to find it I noticed that my rear tyre had started to fail. Yikes - it had only covered 400 Km! I soon found the cycle shop and they had only 2 tyres of the correct size, so I bought them both and installed one of them to replace the newly failed rear tyre. My tyre paranoia was a good thing as I could not have completed my tour without these new tyres. Then I continued to Geraldine, a tourist stop on an inland route northwards. This inland route used to be the main road to Christchurch until they built the present main coastal highway. It remains as a pleasant tourist route with low traffic volumes, great for cycling.

Here I met again the Belgian cyclist I had met in Omarama 2 days before. Next day we cycled together into an unkind headwind, which became strong and gusty by midday, blowing us across the roadway at times. Although I had planned to ride further that day, the wind conditions made cycling dangerous so we stopped at Methven, yet another ski resort. But unlike other resort towns which had developed summer outdoor attractions, this town was essentially deserted and closed for the summer. Finding a decent place for an evening meal was impossible so Brun and I cooked our own pasta in the camping park kitchen.

The wind was still unkind next morning as we rode into it, very slowly. We had to cross a major gorge over the Rakaia river and the wind direction was changed by this deep gully through the mountains making the ride "interesting". Although I had planned to continue north, the clouds were threatening rain, so I headed east to Christchurch as Brun continued north en route to Auckland.

After taking refuge in a nice warm coffee shop (run by a lady who had lived in Alice Springs for many years) in Christchurch I met and stayed with Greg and Wendy, keen cyclists and wonderfully kind hosts. Greg immediately noticed my bright yellow socks and as I had a spare unused pair I left them with him so he too will be visible in traffic! Although I had half a day before my flight left, it had become rainy and too cold for me, so I explored Christchurch city and headed early to the airport for departure.

A 4 hour flight took me to Brisbane where the quarantine service carefully inspected my bike for possible biological contamination. Then it was time for another 4 hour flight to Darwin where I arrived after midnight into the damp and humid warm tropical night air. After reassembling my bike, I rode home the last 35 Km enjoying the nighttime tropical warmth.

It had been an interesting and eventful tour to just a small part of NZ, but a scenically impressive place to ride, much more pleasant than here in flatland! The weather was very variable and it was necessary to adapt my plans and route to the prevailing weather on several occasions, but that is all part of the fun of cycle touring. And the wind can be a serious issue, though I had been fortunate and been able to avoid the worst. I just have to remember to take lots of spare tyres - I destroyed 3 tyres on this relatively short 2000Km 13 day tour!

Here is a detailed interactive map of my route