Part 4 NZ cycle – Wanaka and Queenstown

Wanaka was my favourite town in New Zealand. It definitely had a similar feel to Jasper in Canada. A touristy mountain town with a population of around 7000 and a focus on the outdoors lifestyle – hiking and biking in summer and skiing in winter. If I had to go back and live somewhere in NZ I’d choose Wanaka.

All up we only spent three days in Wanaka. It was just enough time to explore the town, climb Mt Iron and Roys Peak, swim down the Clutha River and mountain bike the awesome Deans Bank track.

Wanaka from Mt Iron with Roys Peak in the background
Wanaka from Mt Iron with Roys Peak in the background

The biggest day was spent climbing the very photogenic 1578m Roys Peak. It took us 7 hours return I believe, well worth it if you ever get the chance.

Lari overlooks Lake Wanaka

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe day was overcast which was actually a blessing in disguise as, due to the trails exposure, we’d have baked like eggs in a frypan if the sun was out.

The trail was a 4WD track most of the way, which snaked it’s way up the mountain at a consistent grade – fairly steep but I’d say a good balance between gaining elevation and reducing distance walked.

The views of Lake Wanaka opened up almost immediately and as there were no trees, remained with us the entire way. Our group was a diverse one including Finnish Lari, Swedish Adam and us two Aussies.

I did say photogenic!
I did say photogenic!
Lari, Adam, Matt and I on Roys Peak summit
Lari, Adam, Matt and I on Roys Peak summit

On Day 31, the 21st December 2014, Matt, Lari and I rode the 75km from Wanaka to Queenstown via the Crown Range. I didn’t know at the time but the Crown Range road is the highest sealed road in all of New Zealand!

It goes without saying then that a tough day of climbing ensued, but our reward was an even longer descent down the other side. Riding the Wanaka to Queenstown direction was definitely the easier way and I felt a little sorry for the poor touring cyclist grinding their way up at 4 km/hr as we whizzed down at 60 km/hr.

The highest sealed road in NZ
The highest sealed road in NZ
At the 1076m Crown Range Pass
Matt, Lari and I at the 1076m Crown Range Pass

A highlight of this ride was the incredible wildflowers near Cardrona. They proved an incredible distraction from the climbing and I couldn’t believe just how many vibrant flowers there were.

When we made it into Queenstown that afternoon Lari was a happy chap. He had finally finished his 1850 km ride and tomorrow he was free to relax. A bus was his mode of transport back to Christchurch.

We spent five days in Queenstown, with the majority of it spent eating ridiculous amounts of calories and playing many games of frisbee golf in the botanical gardens with Lari. Frisbee golf is a game like golf, however instead of getting a ball into a hole you have to throw a frisbee into a metal basket. The course was 18 holes with each ‘hole’ around 60 metres long. Matt just edged out Lari and I for the title of frisbee golf champion.

Queenstown sunset
Queenstown sunset

Matt was also the king eater, and somewhat disturbingly, managed to eat a McDonald’s family value dinner box. That’s 2 big macs, 2 cheeseburgers, 4 small fries, 2 medium cokes and 2 small cokes. He did this with surprising ease!

Another day in Queenstown he ‘triple threated’ which meant eating three meals back to back to back. All within an hour or so. This time it was one meat pie, followed by one large Domino’s ham and pineapple pizza, and finally a McDonald’s hunger buster meal of a big mac, cheeseburger, medium fries, medium coke and small sundae!!!

I couldn’t do such things, a full pizza was enough for me.

The biggest thing we did in Queenstown (and the whole trip) was go skydiving for the first time in our lives. It had been something we had agreed on doing weeks ago when we arrived in New Zealand but we’d been waiting for the right moment.

What better place to do it than here, the ‘adventure capital of the world’ as they say.

The little plane
The little plane

I was more nervous than Matt about the whole ordeal of jumping from 12000 feet but surprisingly when we got to the runway with our ten fellow jumpers I was less nervous. I guess when you see all these other people doing what you’re nervous about doing, you think hang on, if they can do it then surely I can too!

The plane was cramped and as we steadily ascended to our drop point, there were only 7 of us in the plane. A pilot, 3 apprehensive jumpers and 3 uber calm and collected jumpers (our tandems). No one said a word. For us three it was our first jumps.

10888222_404209879743920_1253077898_nMy heart started racing when we got to 11000 feet and Mario, my tandem, told me to put on my googles.

I was the first one to go so when the door opened and the cold air rushed passed my face I realised this was it. I was about to lose control and face the freefall.

Mario told me to sit on the edge and tuck my legs back under the plane. From here he counted 3, 2, 1 … and with a gentle nudge, rolled us out.

BAM! There was the world below us. I lost my stomach for a second but after that it was just a feeling of total freedom. The air rushed passed my face so fast and my ears were filled with the ‘whoooshhh’.

As we fell Mario spun us around in a slow 360 and the vivid blue Lake Wakatipu struck my line of vision, backdropped by bare brown mountains to the east and snow capped ridges to the west. Glenorchy surely has to be one of the best places in the world to jump from. Amazing.

When the parachute opened after what was apparently 45 seconds of freefall, although I completely lost track of time, it reefed us into the air with quite a force. It felt like I was being pulled higher into the sky.

From here¬†Mario gave me a go at the controls and as I tugged hard with my right arm it sent us into a tight right hand spiral. This was actually the most nauseous part of all and I was happy when we got back on the ground. I’d skydived!

It was then a rewarding moment laying back on a bean bag, sipping hot chocolate and watching the next group of jumpers barrel through the sky 12000 feet above.

Two happy jumpers!
Two happy jumpers!

Part 3 NZ cycle – The wild west coast

After our relaxing foray kayaking Abel Tasman, our next goal was the formidable west coast. We had heard a lot about the never ending rain and were keen to find out for ourselves.

This post covers a lot of ground, all the way from Marahau at Abel Tasman down to Wanaka, a distance of 800 km spanning days 15 to 28.

Upon leaving Marahau our goal was simple. Burn time. Franz Josef was 500 km away and we wanted to get there ASAP to give ourselves days off down near the glaciers of Franz and Fox. So that’s what we did, our fitness was up and my knee issue was pretty much resolved.

Camping on our way to the west coast
Enjoying a satisfying dinner on our way to the west coast

The next five days our distances were 82, 108, 63, 123 and 124. We were flying! And in classic west coast fashion we were hit with some rain. The rain wasn’t like the heavy rain from back home though. Over in New Zealand it just drizzled incessantly. The clouds lingered overhead rather than sweeping in and out.

During this leg I reached my maximum speed of the whole trip – 68km/hr down a hill approaching Murchison. This was also the hill that a bag of kiwi fruits fell off my bike with a satisfying “whack”, and splattered themselves across the road. Unlike Matt, I was sick of eating kiwi fruits and I had successfully gotten rid of them in a completely innocent way.

A note for future touring cyclist’s there is a smooth, quiet and sealed secondary road from Ikamatua to Greymouth (50km) that gets you off highway 7. Well worth it!

A fancy sign at Hokitika beach
An artistic wooden sign at Hokitika beach

We were in Hokitika on Day 18 when we met Lari, a cycle tourer from Finland. His schedule aligned with ours almost to the tee and we spent a good two to three weeks riding with him into Queenstown. The funny story about Lari is when he arrived for his 12 week stay in New Zealand he had no intentions of cycling at all. In the end he cycled 1850km from Auckland to Queenstown, driven by the freedom and low cost of cycle touring.

Day 19 was our first day riding with Lari and it sure proved to be one of the most memorable. 124 km into Franz Josef, the equal longest day of the trip, with a good 80 of those through constant rain. When we arrived in Franz Josef we were saturated but deep down very satisfied. The hot shower was incredible.

Drying our clothes in an inventive way using a hot air vent. The dryers were terrible.
Drying our clothes in an inventive way using a hot air vent. The dryers were terrible.
Franz Josef glacier
Franz Josef glacier
Cycling from Franz to Fox
Cycling from Franz to Fox

We ended up staying six days around Franz and Fox townships and our west coast experience was built around tramping up Mt Fox and tramping the Copland Track. Both were very challenging in their own way.

Mt Fox was a day hike up to a lookout 1000m above Fox glacier. The day was fine and sunny after days of rain, however as we discovered as we neared the top, cloud cover was low which cut visability to about 100m. We passed ten other hikers and everyone gave off a negative attitude.

“How was the view from the top?” I asked. “We didn’t make it, damn forest never ends” The first couple replied.

“It gets really muddy up ahead and you won’t be able to see anything”, another frustrated group pointed out.

Matt and I perservered though and eventually our shoes were so muddy we couldn’t care anymore about dodging mud. We reached a vantage point only to find we couldn’t see anything either.

C'mon clouds, lift!
C’mon clouds, lift!

We decided we’d wait it out for an hour and see if it cleared. About half an hour later I said to Matt, “Is that a river down there? ….. Hang on, I think that’s the glacier!”

It was and we were over the moon about our sneak peak. The photo might not look like the best view in the world but at that moment it was. All our work tramping up this ridiculously steep mountain and pushing on when others had indicated to turn back had paid dividends. Each step of the three hours back down was made that little bit easier.

The view that we treasured. Fox glacier.
The view that we treasured. Fox glacier through the clouds.

The next day we regrouped with Lari to spend three days tramping the Copland Track. Most people opt to only go the 18km to Welcome Flat hut but in our customary desire to tackle the toughest challenges available we opted to go the 25km to Douglas Rock hut. It was tough alright!

The trail sign said 8 hours one way to Welcome Flat hut and 11 hours to Douglas Rock hut. Pfft we thought. These signs are always extra conservative. Well no, not in New Zealand. It took us the full 11 hours and just about all our energy.

Lunch along the Copland
Lunch along the Copland

Lari was a strong hiker, and Matt and I were usually playing catch up with our weary legs from the Mt Fox climb the day before. After passing the Welcome Flat hut and hotsprings (which were remarkable but riddled with sandflies) the track became much tougher but on the positive side also more scenic. Most challenges centred around rock hopping to avoid getting a shoe full of water.

One of many rock hopping challenges
One of many rock hopping challenges
Just beyond Welcome Flat hut the track passes through vast open fields. Not we had to hike with our bikes pannier bags.
Just beyond Welcome Flat hut the track passed through vast open fields. Note we had to hike with our bikes pannier bags.

Nearer to Douglas Rock however the track just went up and down repeatedly. Up five metres, then down five metres and on and on. I’d have to say that even compared to all the hiking I did in Canada this last hour before reaching the hut was the hardest hiking I’ve ever done. Each step was a struggle at times in our hungry and tired state.

As is usually the case though, reaching our goal made it all worth it. The hut was brilliant, positioned in a valley surrounded by sheer mountain walls (shown in the feature image for this post). It was just us three in the eight bunk hut enjoying the comfort of the fireplace and even got lucky enough to listen to an avalanche thunder down a nearby mountain.

Me, Matt and Lari in the hut
Me, Matt and Lari in the hut

Our original plan was to tramp out the next day but our bodies objected and the next night we stayed in the two bunk Architects Creek hut. Scissors paper rock it was for a bunk. Unlucky Lari.

It was a good feeling getting back on the bike again on our way to Wanaka. Strange how after a few days off the bike you long to get back on it, but after a few days on it you long to get off it.

Day 26 was 124km from Fox to Haast. In my attempt to make cycling easier however, I overinflated my rear tyre and 70km in I found it bubbling out over the rim. Not good.

I managed to limp the remaining 50km into Haast, stopping several times to wrap duct tape around the tyre and rim. I was hoping there would be a bike shop in Haast to grap a new tyre but there wasn’t.

We made the decision that the best option for me was to catch the bus to Wanaka. Better to get there than be stuck on the side of the road needing to hitch hike with a bike. So that’s how I skipped the formidable Haast Pass.

Matt said that as soon as my bus passed him and Lari their moral dropped big time and all they wanted was to get to Wanaka and get off the bike.

They experienced some of the toughest riding over Haast Pass but also what they say was the most picturesque riding beside Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. You always have to take the good with the bad when cycle touring.

One of a few swing bridges along Copland Track
One of a few swing bridges along Copland Track
Welcome Flat hut hotsprings
Welcome Flat hut hotsprings
Lake Matheson near Fox township was amazing!
Lake Matheson near Fox township was amazing!

Part 2 NZ cycle – Rainforests to beaches

After resting up for a couple of days in Blenheim and devouring one too many McDonald’s meals, we got moving towards our next major stop – world famous Abel Tasman National Park, 175km away.

We rolled out of Blenheim on Day 9 into a non-relenting headwind which made sure our speed remained at a measly 12km/hr. With the effort we were putting in we would normally be going at least 20km/hr!

Thankfully after we passed Renwick our path turned northwards towards Havelock and we were rid of the dreaded headwind. Havelock impressed us both with its large and totally unexpected lake, its quietness and green surrounds. However there was no time to linger, it was on to the equally impressive Pelorus Bridge before dark.

A swing bridge near the Pelorus Bridge campsite
A swing bridge near the Pelorus Bridge campsite

In Pelorus Bridge there was only a campground, cafe, and as you’d expect a bridge. Not much infrastructure, but it was a protected scenic reserve and the campground encircled by dense rainforest impressed us so much we decided to stay two nights. We filled Day 10 hiking (or should I say ‘tramping’ as it’s called in New Zealand) through the forest to a lookout and relaxing down by Pelorus River.

Not only does Pelorus Bridge have the scenic factor though; it was also the location Peter Jackson chose to shoot the ‘barrel scene’ in the movie, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

The second waterfall near Pelorus Bridge campground
The second waterfall near Pelorus Bridge campground
New Zealand iconic fern
New Zealand’s iconic fern

The next day proved to be one of the most challenging, memorable and rewarding days of the whole trip! It was a battle, although the day started out so promising.

Just before we left for NZ I discovered a 4WD/mountain bike/walking trail that cut directly from Pelorus Bridge to Nelson, known as Maungatapu Pass. It looked promising, only 37km along a quiet gravel road rather than 55km of busy highway riding.

The day started with sunshine and as you can see from the photo below, we were happy to be back on the gravel. We were oblivious to what lay ahead.

All smiles back on the gravel
All smiles back on the gravel

About an hour in we reached the official start of the Maungatapu trail and it kicked up something fierce and we were quickly forced off our bikes and into the slow grind of pushing our bikes up. From here on the trail just kept rising up and up for 8 long long km. I didn’t know the elevation gain at the time but I now know that we climbed and descended about 1400m along this rough road.

Soon the clouds were overhead and the rain began. We quickly got our rain jackets on but that didn’t stop us getting cold.

After an uncomfortable lunch in the rain we got back onto our wet saddles and set off again. In the last few km towards the summit the trail got especially steep and rough. It was impossible to ride. As we grit our teeth, bowed our heads, and trudged on the views were quite impressive. It was like we had left NZ and had been transported to the remote hills of Thailand. The clouds hung low and the tree covered mountains continued rolling off into the horizon.

Unfortunately I didn’t get any photos but the rain and conditions were just too much. We eventually crested the top of the Bryant Range after something like 5 hours! The way down was equally steep though and with small streams carving their way down the trail we continued walking.

Shortly we stopped.

Matt said, “Daniel, I’m really cold! My hands are throbbing. This is the coldest I’ve ever been in my life.”

I was almost as cold too, so I got us to put on our fleeces underneath our rain jackets. After Matt’s numb fingers seriously struggled to do up his jacket’s front zipper we decided to take further action. We bundled under the tarp, started the stove and got some hot water into us. At least this helped us enough to get going again and back down to lower and warmer altitudes.

When the suns rays shone upon us about an hour down we just stood there and soaked it up. It was one of the best feelings and moments of all. The simple act of feeling the suns warmth was all we wanted at that moment. It was bliss.

We arrived at Maitai Valley campground relieved, tired and wet. We’d slogged for 8 hours and gone only 37km. The campground attendee saw our state and said we should go have a hot shower and come back later to pay. The 50 cent chocolates they had disappeared in a flash as well. Memorable!

The following day, Day 12, was my favourite day of the trip up until that point. 87km from Nelson to Marahau, mostly following the brilliant Great Taste Trail along the coast which even included a short ferry ride from Rabbit Island to Mapua. The weather was perfect too! You couldn’t find two chaps anywhere in New Zealand who appreciated the weather more after yesterday’s struggles.

Nelson's shoreline was stunning. One of the most beautiful towns we visited.
Nelson’s shoreline was stunning. One of the most beautiful towns we visited.
Mapua ferry
Mapua ferry

We arrived in Motueka and booked a double kayak rental for the next two days in Abel Tasman. From here it was just a tough 2.7km climb over the range to Marahau, the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park. We finished off this long day with the best ‘drop’ of the trip, Old Mout Cider. Went down an absolute treat!

A drink never tasted so good
A drink never tasted so good

Leaving our bikes with Old McDonalds Farm we were free to explore the famous Abel Tasman known for it’s pristine beaches and lush forests.

To start with, kayaking was bloody hard work. Our back muscles were not conditioned to this kind of work. A couple of hours in and we got some rythym going, it was great. We were free to pull into any beach we fancied.

Kayaking
Kayaking

We camped that night up at Bark Bay and went for a short walk up the popular Abel Tasman coastal track. We agreed that this place would be like paradise to inland Europeans who rarely see a beach, but to us beach spoiled Aussies it didn’t attract such a fuss. Make no mistake though, it was pretty damn beautiful and I’m a hard critic since I’m not a real beach fanatic.

On our 12km paddle back to Marahau the next day we passed by Adele Island where we saw many seals sunbaking on the rocky shore, and even diving right beside our kayak. It was pretty special seeing these wild animals so close and with pretty much no one else around. Two days very well spent I’d say.

Someone didn't bring sunglasses so he wore his pants around his face. It worked.
Someone didn’t bring sunglasses so he wore his pants around his face. It worked.
The inlet behind Bark Bay campsite
The inlet behind Bark Bay campsite
This is why Abel Tasman is famous
This is why Abel Tasman is famous

Part 1 NZ cycle – The Molesworth Road

After a lot of gear acquisition and ticking off checklists in the months previous here we were at last – Christchurch. Two fresh faces stood at the baggage carousel and pondered what the next 56 days would bring. The time was 2:30pm Friday 21st November 2014.

We unpacked our bikes at the airport and began building them. For future cycle tourists, Christchurch airport has an excellent bike assembly area. You can simply set up bikes and ride away.

Putting bikes together at Christchurch airport.
Putting bikes together at Christchurch airport

This first section of the ride took us 360km from Christchurch to Blenheim, the highlight obviously being the unsealed Molesworth Road through New Zealand’s stunning high country. More on this a bit later.

Molesworth country
Molesworth country

There were a few big surprises that New Zealand dished out pretty smartly.

1. Just about every town had a campground which made ‘winging’ our camping spots much easier.

2. It was so quiet. Like the whole country was in hibernation.

3. The road roading was no problem at all – it was like the place was made for cycle touring. Our practice ride of the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail had made us a little apprehensive.

Our first ever night in New Zealand
Our first ever night in New Zealand

A note for cyclists, Highway 1 from Christchurch to the turn off to Highway 7 near Waipara felt really safe. The vehicle lanes were wide and there was a sealed shoulder 2m wide.

The day after we arrived the real riding began. What was supposed to be a 40km ride turned into 55km after we accidentally veered off course.¬† Day 2 also taught us our first lesson. Don’t ride through the midday heat.

We arrived at Amberley Beach pretty fatigued, mostly because of the sun! Even though we were in New Zealand, the days certainly got hot, even if the nights were cool. From then on, when the mercury was up we rode for a few hours, lazed in the shade for a couple around 1pm, and then finished off the day.

Day 3 took us up to Culverden where we stayed in one of the best camping spots of the whole trip. Don’t think scenic surrounds though, it was just beside the local cricket field but we did have access to a great big building (the scouts den) with hot showers and kitchen! Getting there wasn’t so easy though for my untrained body in such heat – Weka Pass was a killer! It’s laughable now though just how gentle it really was.

Camping at Culverden
Camping at Culverden

Day 4 we hit the scenic barren mountains of the Molesworth after a steep 6km climb up Jacks Pass from Hanmer Springs. One of the toughest climbs of the whole trip. We were advised from another touring cyclist that this was easier than the 4WD Jollies Pass though!

Looking back towards Hanmer from Jacks Pass climb
Looking back towards Hanmer from Jacks Pass climb
Very happy to be finished Jacks Pass climb
Very happy to be finished the climb
Matt rides off as a speck in the distance just after Jacks Pass
Matt rides off as a speck in the distance just after Jacks Pass

The Molesworth station is New Zealand’s largest farm in land area (almost half a million acres), and at 900m it’s also the highest year round occupied homestead in New Zealand. There is a smooth unsealed public road that runs all the way through from Hanmer Springs to Blenheim, a distance of 180km, that opens in summer.

It was awesome to be off the road and onto the quiet Molesworth Road. Quiet for now at least in late November – the ranger at Acheron campground told us in the Christmas holidays over 200 cars travel through each day.

The Molesworth was a great ride and I highly recommend it to anyone considering the option. Just take plenty of water. Our hardtail mountain bikes with slick tyres worked brilliantly.

The farm homestead
The farm homestead and Mt Chisholm

Kilometre wise, the first week we averaged 60km per day. Clearly I’d been slack and opted to build up my fitness in New Zealand rather than back home. In hindsight this philosophy wasn’t the best. Yes, after 2 weeks a 100km day felt like a 60km day, however there was one concern. My knee.

From Day 4 to Day 10 the inside of my left knee was in a bad way, it had developed a dull but constant pain from the repetitive pedalling motion which peaked on Day 5. The pain forced me off my bike and after walking for 15km I thankfully got a lift from a volunteer ranger the last 30km to Molesworth cob cottage. He fixed me up with Voltaren cream and a compression bandage which helped me make the remaining 120km to Blenheim. What a top bloke. We always referred to him by his catchphrase, “Good as Gold”.

Camping next to the original Molesworth cob cottage
Camping next to the original Molesworth cob cottage

I’m still not sure of the exact cause of the knee pain, however I believe it was a combination of too much riding too soon as well as the cleat on my shoe being slightly misaligned. After I realigned the cleat my knee slowly began feeling better. Strange though given that the cleat had been positioned the same way for years.

Matt experienced no such dramas and was physically great. In the first week he was however often wondering what he would be doing if he was home, rather than living in the here and now. Once he got more involved in planning out where we were headed next he started enjoying it a lot more.

On Day 6 after we had been riding for many hours in hot sun, we reached a small quiet bridge. Even though it was 4pm the sun was at its greatest strength. Note that the sun only went down after 9pm! We both didn’t feel like talking but I finally said “How about we go sit under the bridge? We’re both so dehydrated”. It was a good lesson for us both – when we feel like that we should find shade and refuel even if we don’t feel like it. Matt didn’t even realise he was dehydrated.

Molesworth mountains
Molesworth mountains
Nearing Blenheim and looking back towards the Inland Kaikoura mountain range.
Nearing Blenheim and looking back towards the Inland Kaikoura mountain range.

Reaching Blenheim Top 10 Holiday Park was satisfying. It marked the end of the first leg of this journey and a place where we could rest, cook with more than a burner and pot – and shower!

The joy that food can bring. Refueling at Hanmer Springs.
The joy of food…
And again.
And again. Thankyou Blenheim.