One of the many great things about travel is that it allows us to see our homes with a broadened perspective. I had never been to New Zealand, and a recent three week trip to the South Island provided many great experiences, as well providing a fresh appreciation of the cycling we have at home. I had organised nothing more than a hire care and a rough idea of locations. This was not to be a dedicated cycling trip, but both my wife and I were keen to ride if we had the opportunity.
Arriving in Christchurch the day after the recent earthquakes found us amidst a laid-back “you call that a quake?” attitude from the locals. Most of the fuss was coming from those in Wellington who had to put up with their ferries not running for a few days (locals roll eyes).
From a cycling perspective, numerous bike lanes and a city hire scheme based on a phone app impressed us with a can-do atmosphere in a city where a lot of rebuilding remains to be done from the 2011 quakes.
Heading up through the central ranges in our tiny car, an impression formed that was to be reinforced throughout our stay. The roads are great, but this is not a place I’d really want to do conventional cycle touring. We found that while the surfaces were universally excellent, shoulders on the road were rare indeed. Coupled with this is the lack of the alternate, low traffic routes that we might find at home. Most of the beautiful locations are connected, it seems, by just one road, and this road will be used by many busses, many RVs, and holiday drivers from countries all over the world. So – I’m not itching to get back with the touring bike and traverse the shaky isles any time soon.
What of the mountain biking though? We had heard of NZ as a great MTB destination. I spoke with many local operators during our stay, and their observations were quite consistent and can be summed up as follows: During the GFC the government decided to throw a shitload of money into the construction of cycle trails, and no one really expected it to create the industry that it has. Our first exposure to this was the West Coast Wilderness Trail.
Turning up on spec in Greymouth on Saturday morning, we hired a couple of 29er hardtails with a view to having a look at the Wilderness Trail. I found it hard to form a plan though – the literature suggested riding the 100km from Greymouth to Hokitika would take three days, which seemed rather too much time. Margot and I set out early on the following morning with the plan that we would simply ride until the middle of the day and then return. Not ideal, but better than nothing. By very good fortune we bumped in to an operator, Chris, 30km in to the ride whose business was ferrying riders to destinations along the trail. After speaking with him we arranged that we would do the whole trail to Hokitika and he would take us back to Greymouth at the end of the day. This was a brilliant outcome, and a stunning day’s riding. Talking with Chris at the end of the day we discussed the difficulties of suggesting an appropriate goal for each day. He had recently had a couple of inexperienced clients who had greatly overestimated their capacity and run into strife even on a 30km day. The problem of describing the trail and allowing riders to set realistic goals is one without an easy solution. It came up as a common theme during our stay.
Travelling north to Westport I popped in to another bike shop to discuss the possibility of picking up bikes and transfers for the Charming Valley ride. This proved difficult logistically, so we ended up simply walking as much of the trail as we could in an arvo. This trail, following an old coal-mining railway, while beautiful, would have challenged us far more than the West Coast, and indeed we would have had to walk many bits. Tough to pick without seeing it, as both trails are described similarly in the guides. Another, longer ride – the Old Ghost Road – was also discussed, and put in the “this is for more serious MTBers than us” category.
After spending a few days around glaciers at Franz Joseph and Fox, we arrived at Wanaka, described as the “quiet cousin” of Queenstown. Here I was a bit itchy to get back on a bike, and we were well accommodated with a couple more hardtails.
There is an extensive network of MTB trails around the town, and while this is not really my bag I did spend a very enjoyable couple of hours stuck on a loop, Goundhog Day style, unable to find my way off. Margot and I also managed a nice day-ride along well signed and documented trails along the lakes and rivers.
Queenstown itself was a bit of a shock to this poor boy’s system. Traffic, jet boats, Louis Vuitton, and that air of euro-ennui that a place acquires when the backpacker numbers creep over a certain percentage. A couple of shitful MTBs, hired out of desperation and for too much money, did offer welcome respite in a lovely lakeside ride that provided relief from the bustle.
Escape from Queenstown was welcome, and with nothing organised, an early morning phone call to a bike hire place in Twizel again struck gold. Stu and Shell would fit us out with more hardtails, set us out on a 35km afternoon leg of the Alps to Ocean ride and pick us up at the end of it. Killer views, while skirting lake Ohau on well-made gravel tracks, was bliss.
The 300km Alps to Ocean trail (A2O) from Mt Cook to Oamaru is revitalising hotels and cafes along its route, and has created a whole new industry in the towns along it. The people I spoke to were not dewy-eyed idealists, but rather people who saw an opportunity to get in to a new and growing industry. It could have been salmon farming, but it happened to be bikes. The next day we did another leg, a bit longer this time, 60km along hydro canals from to Tepako to lake Pukaki and then around the lake to Twizel. More bliss.
The top parts are the best part of the A2O trail, and there is really no need to do whole thing. I guess the trail as a whole is easier to market and understand, and it can be ticked off the list when you reach the fascinating old town of Oamaru on the coast. The riding is easy, but the trail is immature, and still contains many sections on main roads. Work is being done to remedy this, but there is much to be done, mainly in dealing with landowners, I was told.
What interests me greatly is the talk I heard of an off-road track all the way from Queenstown to Twizel. I’ll be watching out for that for sure.
To sum up: The West Coast Wilderness Trail is a great day or two on a bike, if rather isolated. Skilled MTBers like the Charming Valley and Old Ghost Road, also on the west coast. There are heaps of MTB trails and rides around Queentsown if you can handle the pace; Wanaka is great too, and much quieter. The Alps to Ocean is a must see – the bits at the top, anyway. If you ride the whole 300km you’ll be spending a bit of time on the bitumen.
All images: David Hume